In 2011, a year before Mehdi Hassan Khan passed away, the ailing Shahensah-e-Ghazal (King of Ghazal) recorded his first and last duet ghazal with Lata Mangeshkar (a long cherished dream for both singers) for an album called Sarhadein (Borders). The album became a meeting point for the two stalwarts to sing a paean to each other’s glory in the apt words of lyricist Farhad Shahzad, Tera milna bahut accha lage hai.
The octogenarian singers (Hassan was 83 at the time of the recording, Mangeshkar 82) sing like impassioned lovers walking towards each other in a mist of memories. The duet is lush and ambient with flutes and violins in the air and melancholy dripping in their seasoned voices. Composer Mayuresh Pai understands that what is happening here is historic and bigger than his music, and so he keeps the arrangement simple and fluid, allowing the singers to take centerstage with their echolalic vocals. While it’s debatable whether Mangeshkar’s faltering high pitch is suited for singing any further, the smooth texture of Hassan’s voice flows under hers, cutting her sharp sound like cascading honey, as if he is still in his prime. There is no slackening of Hassan’s control and hold over his exceptionally soft and soothing voice.
Hassan wasn’t trained for it, though. He was born in 1927 into a house of musicians from the Kalawant clan in Rajasthan, where his father and uncle were dhrupad exponents and masters of devotional chants, and was expected to follow them. At the age of eight, Hassan began to train in dhrupad and khayal. After the Partition in 1947, his family migrated to Pakistan, where they fell on hard times. Hassan worked in a garage as a mechanic, and would sing in his spare time. In 1957, he got an opportunity to sing on Radio Pakistan and soon, offers to sing for the movies began to roll in.
When he sang poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ghazal Gulon mein rang bhare for the movie Farangi (1964), it moved the poet so much that he bequeathed the song to Mehdi Hassan. Faiz had in a similar fashion credited his nazm Mujh se pehli si mohabbat to Noor Jehan. The ghazal is a poetic form of the highest literary standard, and Hassan’s enunciation of the words and the manner in which he explores their depth of meaning lifts the poetry into a magical sphere of mausiqi (music).
In the 1970s, the peak decade for Pakistani cinema, Hassan was one of the most successful playback singers in the country. Towards the ’80s, his playback career dwindled along with the film industry, and he focused on live performances, which brought him closer to his audiences and gave him a platform to improvise. At his concerts, he mixed ghazal singing with his classical background and expanded the form by singing in different ragas to enhance its poetry.
Here he is singing poet Ahmed Faraz’s ghazal Ranjish hi sahi in 12 minutes.
And here he sings it for 20 minutes, thus giving the ghazal a musical interpretation not bound by its reading time. Hassan decorates the ghazal with alaap (opening section) and taan (modulation), stressing on words to create a mood in which he takes time to explain the nazakat (exquisiteness) of poetry.
Blending poetry with his music, Hassan gave the ghazal a bigger fan base, picking the poetry of Mir Taqi Mir (Patta patta boota boota), Mirza Ghalib (Dil-e-Nadaan), Parveen Shakir (Kubaku phail gayi), Hafiz Hoshyarpuri (Mohabbat karne waale kum na honge), Qateel Shifai (Zindagi mein toh sabhi pyar), among several others.
When Lata Mangeshkar heard him at a concert in 1977 in Delhi, she said, “Aisa lagta hai ke unke gale mein bhagwan bolte hain.” God sings through his voice. In 2011, the goddess of Indian playback got her wish.
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